Kendall Hunt Publishing

Addressing the Gender Gap in Science

June 18, 2021

By: Laurel Curtiss

My first homework assignment for middle school, sixth-grade science was to draw a scientist. I couldn’t believe my luck; I loved drawing. Middle school was shaping up to be pretty easy. When I arrived at home, I immediately got out my colored pencils and paper and got to work. I drew a scientist with hair reminiscent of Einstein, round, Harry Potter-like glasses, and a long, white lab coat. He was holding a beaker overflowing with a green concoction in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. I could hardly wait to share my artwork with the class the next morning, so imagine my surprise when I learned that I had completed the assignment in an entirely predictable fashion. Once the entire class had presented their drawings, my teacher noted the lack of portrayal of female scientists. We quickly learned the importance of thinking of women as equally capable in STEM and changing our preconceived notions about the world of science.

My experience was not unique. These “draw-a-scientist” experiments have been used since the 1980’s to determine at what age children begin to form their idea of the stereotypical scientist. According to the International Journal of Science Education, as students grow and science classes get more complex, girls tend to view science and other STEM fields as a “male domain.” As reported by a “draw-a-scientist” study conducted over five decades and reported in 2018, 70% female kindergarten students drew female scientists, 50% of them drew male scientists by age 10, and 75% drew male scientists by the time they hit high school. These discouraging statistics reveal a need for a greater emphasis on the representation of women in STEM in schools as well as the proper encouragement of girls to pursue fields in which they are interested.  

According to research conducted by R.E. O’Dea and M. Gagisz, girls have been found to perform just as well as boys in the maths and sciences, if not slightly better. Notwithstanding this reality, women in the United States recently earned only 36% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees even though they earned 58% of the total bachelor degrees awarded. The Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) has identified that girls, while showing more of a clear advantage in and aptitude for humanities courses by scoring significantly higher than boys, still excel in math and science courses by scoring roughly the same, if not marginally higher, than boys. Despite these statistics, high-school-aged girls were still considerably less likely to choose a STEM specialization for their higher education. 

Strategies for encouraging girls in STEM include embracing new learning formats and focusing on real-world uses for science. In one study conducted by Kathryn Stevenson and published in the International Journal of Science Education, it was found that hands-on, application-based learning is constructive for marginalized students. Within the study, fifth-grade students in the traditional science class were exposed to lectures, in-class experiments, and discussions, while the students in outdoor classes would participate in hands-on science investigations and journaling. Stevenson discovered that, while girls’ grades in traditional classrooms slowly declined over the course of the school year, girls in the experimental class maintained and improved their grades, surpassing male classmates. 

Stevenson concluded that students benefit from seeing the relevance of science in their everyday lives. “If traditional STEM classroom activities aren’t allowing girls to see themselves as scientists, then perhaps new strategies that shift the paradigm, like hands-on and inquiry-based learning, can broaden the appeal of STEM and make it ‘come alive in really tangible ways that all students can relate to (Edutopia).’” 

While it may not be realistic to teach science exclusively through experiments, there are ways to incorporate a curriculum that awakens student interest and encourages them to view themselves as capable scientists. Bring a hands-on, interactive science curriculum into your classroom with Forensic Science for High School

With the rising popularity found in true-crime podcasts, documentaries, and novels, your students will have the opportunity to explore the very processes of analysis and discovery that first piqued their interest in the world of criminology. This high-interest, inquiry-rich integrated science curriculum emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving using real-world science methodologies. Your students will be able to apply the scientific method to analyzing physical pieces of evidence through a series of case studies that brings the world of forensic science to life. 

Teamwork, cooperative learning, and an inquiry approach to education are all combined to prepare students for work in the real world as well as excite their interest in STEM professions.  

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